The ABC’s of Cooks, Cleaners, Drivers, Nannys, Gardeners & Night Guards

Cooks nanny and me - futuro_icons_55
Like me, you’re probably not used to the luxury of household &/or childcare help. Geez, last time I checked it was a minimum of $80 to have someone spend a couple hours vacuuming & cleaning my tiny apartment in the U.S. Here, in South America, I can afford help. Problem is, it’s not going so well…

My first maid stole stuff from me, the cook had an affair with the second maid & both were asked to leave. A new cook was not dependable so the first cook returned but left soon after for personal reasons, the gardener ran off with my lawn mower, the night guard sleeps on the job, & on & on…This is my second year here & quite honestly, household help is getting to be more trouble than it’s worth!

At times, I feel like the local bank — my driver asked for $90 to help cover his child’s school tuition & uniforms, the cook needed $30 for a doctor’s visit & medicine (What?! He’s sick?). Then there’s the double pay for various holidays. I’m usually happy to help but I’m not sure how involved I want to become in the lives of my household staff & afraid each one of them believes I’ve adopted them & their families. Still, the utter lack of compassion displayed by my host national neighbors toward their staff bothers me & I do want to be a better person. Is this part of the ABC’s of household help?

By giving directly to people who work for me it means every cent goes into their pocket rather than giving money to a charity where there will, most likely, be some CEO taking home at least $100K. I feel good knowing they are cared for. But beyond the monetary considerations, I have to wonder: How do parents of young children & teens check out all they need to know about hiring a trustworthy nanny or a careful driver for their active children? It’s mind-boggling! Is this more of the ABC’s of household help?

Being somewhat new to the overseas lifestyle, I could use & would appreciate any advice from other overseas educators on the topic of household help. How involved should I become in their lives? What is my responsibility to them? How do you find a responsible, loving person to care for or transport your precious children? Who do you, CAN you trust? Please, tell us about YOUR ABC’s of household help.

16 thoughts on “The ABC’s of Cooks, Cleaners, Drivers, Nannys, Gardeners & Night Guards

  1. HI! Thank you for sharing this article! As a single dad, with two boys in elementary school, I’m looking forward to having more affordable help in the form of child-care and cleaning. Currently, I pay more than $500/week (or US $2,000/month) for 40+ hours of weekly nanny-babysitting service. That doesn’t even include the additional costs to have a 4 bedroom, 3 level home cleaned by a maid (and paying for a mortgage and taxes on a home! When you work 12-15 hours days in the USA- child care costs add up! For me, moving abroad to work in an international school will assist with gaining some family time back (working in the same school attended by both of my sons, walking to school together, and ending the day together). It’s also nice to be on the same school schedule for holidays and breaks. There are plenty of Americans using these services at home, but it costs a pretty penny! The big issue, no matter where you go is the safety and security of your children and your home (and all your personal stuff) in the care of a stranger. I always have a trial period on a weekend or evening when I am “In the house” to monitor their interactions with my children, get my sons to share their feedback, and then proceed with another trial session ,like a 2-3 hour dinner or evening out. I truly believe in gradual release of responsibility to the child-care worker and I always introduce the worker to my neighbors to make sure they are informed. How do you handle seasonal bonuses abroad? (Christmas? New Years? Easter? Etc?)


  2. Only in Africa did I have a maid. That was because everything had to be ironed to prevent fly larvae from making boils under my skin that hatched into wormy things. The flies lay eggs on wet clothing. Some expats bought electric dryers but power was crazy expensive.
    Remember if you choose to be an employer than be one. Give your maid, etc dignity by establishing clear professional boundaries appropriate to the maid’s culture. Pay fairly and be clear about your expectations. If they screw up badly fire them. For example theft. You are not there to “save” people. The reality is you can’t change people or culture.


  3. Our family has a nanny, who also helps around the house and in the rare instances when we are too tired would cook us a great meal. We had 11 interviews before settling on her and we couldn’t be happier. We are expats, who find things very different to back home, but we do speak the local language (which is rare for expats).

    From the very start we are paying her about double (if not triple) of what the locals would pay a non-English speaking nanny. We are paying more per hour than most expats, however this is still virtually nothing compared to back home. All tasks no matter how complicated are broken down into simple yes/no so that there is very little chance of creativity.
    – When personal creams are being used we kindly ask for those not to be used. Again.
    – When the clothes are ironed with a wrong setting, we ask again and again for the right setting to be used.

    At the very start of our working relationship, the nanny had a string of accidents: fallen out teeth (miraculously back in place a week later), daughter in hospital, collectors about to evict the family from home, a drunk-driving brother, who is about to go to jail if money is not urgently given as a bribe. In each of these instances we sat down and told the nanny firmly that we are from a different culture – the one where things are being done differently. We are happy to give her work and pay her double/triple of what she would usually get in exchange for her not asking us for urgent money. Kinda take it or leave it type of a deal, which seems to be working (we are now down to an average of one emergency per semester).

    While it is easy to fall into the “all locals are lazy/dumb/insert your description” trap, one needs to understand that in most countries no matter how bad things are people get to make some choice and if a person makes a choice to become a cleaner/maid/nanny working on low wages, there is a big chance that they might need to be given very clear precise instructions and they would try to cut corners if given a chance. It’s almost like in a classroom with kids – kids love discipline, so do many employees (on low wages).

    I hope this helps.


  4. Why do international school teachers need cleaners in the first place? Are we that busy/lazy that we can’t clean our own apartments? We’re not exactly on the same level as CEOs and Prime Ministers that we are so time-poor that we can’t clean up after ourselves.


    1. First, it actually is contributory to the local economy and you would be really helping someone financially who is in a much less stable economic position than yourself.I used to worry about the implications of hiring help, but knowing the economic struggles of people in the country where I live, I realize I can really make a difference in people’s lives.My guard makes the equivalent of $3000 a year. I pay him to pick up after my dog, to sometimes walk the dog when I can’t get home in time, and to wash my car. In a year, he increases his annual salary significantly by doing these extra things for me. I only wanted someone to clean for me 3 days a week. I ended up with 2 maids for 5 days, mainly because they were friends of firends and in need of financial assistance and I am in a position where I can afford it. I’ve been in debt and not sure how I was going to feed myself, cover rent and cover medical expenses. I am very happy to ‘pay it forward’.

      Second, some times, International Teachers are rather busy and would rather spend time with their families than in doing domestic chores. I have to line dry my clothes and it takes about 20 minutes to get things hung. If I’ve done two loads, even longer. I have to do this in the morning before I leave for work, after I have walked and played with the dog and fed and interacted with the cat, I don’t have time to hang my laundry. I have to hope it doesn’t rain during the day or my laundry washing will have been wasted (lots of trees overhanging my laundry line. Having someone around to help with this things does make my life easier and allows me to focus more on lesson planning, and so I can have a life outside of school.


    2. I’m not too convinced. I would say many international school teachers are not too economically secure themselves. Many are crippled with student debts coupled with the fact the international school wages are stagnating due to the massive expansion of the market and a race to the bottom over the last 10 years or so with a knock-on effect on teacher wages. In addition, many teachers have to rely on their own private savings for retirement rather than pensions from back home which adds to precariousness of their financial position.
      By contrast the locals that are hired usually have a support network within their country which can buffer them against such concerns. Sure they may be poor in relation to us expat teachers but their overheads are much lower but they have the security of familial and community networks which we don’t which actually gives them a layer of security which we lack.
      I grew up poor in a Western country so I don’t really feel the whole “expat privilege” guilt about contributing to the local economy. I already do contribute by spending on goods and services in the local economy and by teaching local pupils in international schools which hopefully upgrades the country’s skills base and improves the country economically in the long run.
      This discussion about “the help” seems to me to be a risible fretting about the consequences of unnecessary lifestyle inflation just because we are slightly more financially comfortable abroad than we were in our home countries. I see teachers at my school hiring maids when they are often broke at the end of the month themselves and usually have little security in the form of pensions or property. It does make me chuckle.


    3. We have had help for the last 6 years. The main reason is that we don’t have local support. There are no grandparents here, etc.

      We both work full-time as teachers and someone has to watch the children since they get home slightly earlier than we do. This means we have to have some time of help. We crunched the numbers and if our children take 2 days off school a month then it pays for the help if we have to take sick days to take care of them. When our children are older we may not bother but at the moment it just makes sense.


  5. I have a maid but am getting rid of her because her standard of cleaning is far beneath mine. Just wiping things with water is not cleaning even with all the cleaning products I have purchased and shown her how to use them. She also cooks however everything is curry based which makes me sick. Too much salt, oil and sugar in everything. Repeated request not to cook or put so much in falls on deaf ears. She is also using my things e.g. washing machine to wash her families clothes. When I asked her about it she looked me in the eye and said she didn’t it was evident the machine was used from how I left it.

    My personal products are also being used.

    When I walk into the house is smells. I hate food smells in a house much less all my clothing, bags etc smelling of curry.

    My home is my sanctuary and therefore I want her out. My colleagues who are all locals think I am mad however for peace of mind and a restful heart it is best she does not work for me any more.


    1. Totally agree. You really need to look well before settling on someone (if you do need help). We had a nanny once and my wife didn’t want to be home with her. One of them had to go – we decided to keep the wife.


    1. In all probability it will never come back and by taking it out of their salaries, you will be depriving their family of something they need. That’s just me. I have kissed many an advance goodbye because of this. Thanks for your honest reply.


    2. We’ve done lots of “advances” here in Thailand because of the local culture. It is always made clear that it is just early pay. “Here is X not and at the end of the month you will receive Y”

      There has never been an issue.


  6. I have come to view the financial help asked for by domestic helpers as “a gift.” Seldom if ever, will advances on pay and loans be paid back. The majority of domestic workers are unable to afford ‘extras’ that we sometimes take for granted.
    One does also realise that it can be annoying when one is “exploited” as a foreigner, as the attitude of locals towards foreigners (here in the Philippines anyway in my experience) has been one of “You can afford it!” Indeed we can, but it can become somewhat annoying when everyone thinks that you have as much money as Bill Gates!
    Omgarsenal’s advice is good. Most schools have people who are known and whom have worked for foreigners as house helps before.
    The upside is that domestic help is good to have. The downside however is that there will be times when we find it annoying , but I have to remind myself anyway that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” As for those who steal and run off at the first sign of a long weekend or family event, well, then its perhaps best to struggle on on one’s own and do without extra domestic help. However for many domestic workers, we as employers may be the only lifeline these folk have. Of course whilst “Charity begins at home” we can help, but we should not allow ourselves to be be tricked and exploited. Perhaps a simple contract of employment may help here? Perhaps schools can help here? My school here was very good at assisting teachers to settle in and find domestic help, especially when teachers had children needing “Yayas” (Nannies)


    1. Wow. For many of these these people, we DO have as much money as Bill Gates–even in my first international $20,000 a year job. Maybe it’s that I live in a gentrifying village, so while my place is lovely, I literally look across the alley into the hovel behind me that is normal living quarters. It gives me perspective.

      On the few occasions I’ve been asked for an advance, it has ALWAYS been paid back within a month or two, even when I told the person it did not need to be paid back. I find some of the attitudes here appalling, reminiscent of the co-worker who, when she found out how much I paid my cleaner, grew quite irate and told me I was “ruining it for everyone else.”

      Maybe I’ve been lucky, but in 18 years and four countries I’ve never had a problem with theft or dishonesty. I did have one cleaner who was not very good, but I moved apartments and that solved that problem.


  7. There are a few techniques to ensure (as much as is humanly possible) that the help really are trustworthy and reliable. Here are a few;

    1)Get fellow teachers,staff.parents to recommend people they trust,
    2) Speak to a ex-pat corporate family about who their company hires,
    3) Ask local embassy employees who they rely on,
    4) go to the local church(es) and ask about reliable,honest people to work for you,
    5) Do NOT rely on police or other officials to recommend someone, nor any recommendations from the like.
    6) Join an ex-pat association if one exists and profit from their local knowledge and experiences.

    There may be other things you can try but these worked for me.


    1. OMGARSENAL This is great advice.

      If I may add: on final interview or hiring, specify: bonus for annual leave or on anniversary of hire date (or no bonus at all) and no loads, advances etc.

      We have a housekeeper / cook who on a regular basis was asking for advances which turned out to be monetary gifts, the last time I was asked, I simply turned around and said as nicely as I could. “No.” To my surprise the following morning she told me that her problem “has gone away”. She is still with us and her attitude fine.

      Just put your foot down. Set clear expectations. It is your home therefore it is about how you manage the people working in your home.


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